Authority: The Deaconess

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.

The biblical office of Deaconess is largely ignored by the Church in the United States today.  Liberal churches ignore the clear injunction of the Bible to “not allow a woman to exercise authority over a man” and ordain gifted women to the authoritative offices of Elder and Deacon.  Conservative churches, in a knee-jerk reaction to liberalism, deny the existence of the office of Deaconess entirely.  Neither position is biblical.

In Romans 16:1 Paul says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a diakonon (deaconess) of the church in Cenchrea.”  He goes on to greet Priscilla (Prisca), whom he describes as a “fellow worker in Christ Jesus”.  It is assumed that she is a deaconesses as well.  Clearly Paul publicly recognized women who were “fellow workers” in the Gospel and who were called “deaconesses”.

I Timothy 3 contains the qualifications for elders and deacons.  Verse eleven says this,  “Gunikas (women), in the same way, are to be grave, not slanders, sober, faithful in all things.”  Interpreters differ on the interpretation of the Greek word for ‘women’; some believe it is a reference to deaconesses and others believe it is a reference to the deacon’s wife.   It seems to me that the word should be interpreted as a reference to a deaconess for the following reasons:

1.  It seems very strange that Paul would be describing the characteristics required to hold public office in the church and judge a candidate for office based on the character of his wife.  Those who interpret the word “gunikas” as “wife” need to explain why a candidate for deacon should be judged by the character of his wife.  Furthermore, they need to explain why the office of elder does not specify qualifications for the wives while the office of deacon does.

2.  In the course of describing the character qualities for a deacon it makes perfect sense that Paul would also include the character qualities required for the “women” deacons, or deaconesses.  He recognized the public office of deaconess and referring to them here simply as “women” makes perfect sense in that it serves to distinguish them from the male deacons.

The existence of the office of Deaconess is seen in the writings of the Post-Apostolic Church.  In the famous letter from Pliny to Trajan (110) he makes reference to the biblical office of Deaconess.

The First Ecumenical Council (325) specifically discusses the qualifications for the office of Deaconess and describes their function primarily as one of instruction to female baptismal candidates.

Book II of the Constitution of the Apostles (325) specifically describes the office of Deaconess and instructs them to act as intermediaries between the women of the church and the elders.

Many theologians in the history of the Church have recognized the office of Deaconess and described it in their theological writings.  This list of theologians includes, but is not limited to:  Aquinas, Barnes, Calvin, Hodge, and Strong.

The biblical office of Deaconess is an office that recognizes that there are women in the Church who have been called to a public office of service and teaching of other women.  It is not an authoritative office and they are not ordained to the post.  It is an office of service/teaching to women and children and the practice of the historical Church has been to install qualified women in a ceremony in which they are publicly set aside to the office by the laying on of hands.  Besides the character qualities required in Timothy, the primary function of the Deaconess is the teaching of women (Titus 2: 3-5).  Those who have clearly shown themselves as gifted in this fashion should be installed to the office of Deaconess.

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